“I look for some chords I like. I try to put them in some kind of rational order. Then I stick notes on those chords and then I find some lyrics that fit on those notes, and I tell you my point of view of my personal life and the world I see around me, hoping that you will find yourself in my story.”

Dennis DeYoung on Songwriting

July 2020



Last night I was tootling around looking at different videos and interviews with you. There was one quote that caught my attention that pertains to what we’re talking about here. You said, “I’m a melody man in a rhythm age.”

Isn’t that a wonderful thought? I wanted to title my autobiography that.

Care to expound on that?

Yeah. 1947. That says something right there. While there wasn’t a lot of music in our house, my parents were not what I would call music lovers. I’ve read some musicians had that in their family. I didn’t. I came from a very hardworking, blue-collar family and we had an old ‘78 record player as I was growing up. So, I can’t say I was exposed to a lot of music. The music I was exposed to was accordion music. Imagine that as a way to start life.

Accordions are about melody, harmony, and rhythm all in one box. Pianos are like that. Guitar can be like that, but it’s really hard to do that. They used to say in the old days, the accordion is an orchestra in one instrument. Maybe not one you want to listen to, but nonetheless, there it is.

So, melody-driven music which permeated the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s was in my blood because that’s the music I studied when I was taking accordion lessons and since I’m the age I am (73), the Hit Parade was something I could watch on TV and that music is melody-based. It really is. Popular music from the ’40s, ‘50s, and early ’60s was driven by melody, not rhythm.

So, I’m consumed by melody. I think it is the very best thing there is in music. That’s my opinion. When I go in front of a group of people who have known my music for decades, they may not know all the lyrics. They’ll start with the few lines they know, but they can sing the melody right to the end which tells me immediately what’s more important; what’s more lasting. It makes an impact on the brain that the lyrics never will. So, since I was raised on that music and being an accordion player, I am a melody-driven person. I’ve felt throughout my songwriting history that my love for melody has driven the music I’ve written.

You know in rock and roll, we used to say, ‘Okay we have to make that more boneheaded.’ This meant in the parameters of the way rock is perceived by many people and loved by billions is that it’s simpler music. The chords can’t be too smart. I hate to say this is true. And so, we used to say, ‘We have to dumb that down a little bit. Don’t try to be too clever, too cute, too smart.’ Because at its essence, rock and roll is a very basic form of music, but one that appeals. So, you can’t use certain chords and you have to be careful with the melody. It can’t be too flowery.

If I asked you right now your favorite song, there’s a good chance you could sing it start to finish. But there’s a good chance also that you wouldn’t remember all the lyrics. That’s just a fact. So that’s why melody is the most important thing to me.

“Come Sail Away”

Music and Lyrics: Dennis DeYoung

Producer: Styx

“Come Sail Away” was the lead single from “The Grand Illusion” album and peaked at #8 in January 1978 on the Billboard Hot 100. It remains one of the biggest hits of Styx’s career.

How about “Come Sail Away”?

It’s a simple song. It’s about yearning to be in a better place than where you are. Whether it’s achieved by getting on an imaginary boat and you’re the captain of it, which is essentially saying, ‘I want to be in control of my destiny. And I don’t feel that way, and I want to go someplace.’ Wherever the virgin sea leads you.

Or it’s angels coming down and sweeping you up in their wings. Or it’s space aliens, or it’s the Starship Enterprise that comes and lands and takes off into faraway galaxies. But it’s the yearning to be someplace better than where you are. And that’s why it still connects with people because it’s a basic human feeling to escape from whatever troubles or problems you’re in. To a place that’s problem-free, which is why my music and my career continue because my audience and most audiences are enraptured in the music they loved when they were teenagers. And they never are able to escape from those feelings that you told me about [with] “Lady,” because the adolescent mind is confused and looking for answers. I now find the adult mind ain’t that much different.

And this CSA appears—and don’t tell me you don’t idolize those teen years in many ways because they were really before actual responsibility. You could still dream the big dream, and you thought things were possible, that only life and adulthood prove not to be so.

I read an article where they interviewed you and Suzanne. It said for “Come Sail Away” that you were listening to the playback in the studio and you turned to a friend and said, ‘If that song doesn’t do it, nothing can. I can’t do better than that.’

That’s right. It’s exactly what happened. My friend was Tom Short. He died early, in his fifties. He was my best friend. He was in the studio that night. He was just standing there as it’s played back, and I thought, ‘Well, what the fuck? What do you want from me?’ Because we hadn’t become the success we would after that album.

We had made two really, really good albums with “Equinox” and “Crystal Ball” and had a good one with “Styx II” and “Lady,” but we were still the bridesmaids and never the bride. Always the band that played before the band. And that’s where the line comes from, ‘I looked to the sea, reflections in the waves sparked my memory, some happy, some sad, I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had.’ That’s me, John, and Chuck Panozzo standing backstage, watching the headliner play; looking at each other, and wondering if we would ever get there. And then when “The Grand Illusion” hit, we could not be denied.

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